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Cowboys aim for new and improved defense under Mike Nolan in 2020

After a disappointing 2019, the Dallas Cowboys are gearing up to improve the defense with a new look and new schemes.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys free safety Xavier Woods (25) intercepts a pass next to cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (24) and Washington Redskins wide receiver Maurice Harris (13) during the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Much has been made about how good the Dallas Cowboys were on offense last season. The addition of wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, the inclusion of Blake Jarwin taking on a bigger role at tight end, and the return of second-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore gives quarterback Dak Prescott’s side of the ball the look of an unstoppable force for the upcoming year. 

Throw in the addition of new head coach Mike McCarthy, and his veteran offense-minded influence, and it’s hard to see Dallas taking a step back when they have the ball.

However, while the offense has grabbed the spotlight, there hasn’t been much talk about how things might change on defense throughout the spring. Safety Xavier Woods recently provided some input on what might be different from the defense under new coordinator Mike Nolan.

A bevy of new schemes and variance in looks should be music to the ears of Cowboys fans. Under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, it always felt like opponents knew what the defense was going to do when Dallas lined up. The Cowboys lived and died by a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. 

And while change after a difficult season should be welcomed, it must be noted that the Cowboys under Marinelli weren’t terrible in 2019. The team ranked well inside the top half of the league in some important categories. Dallas was in third in the NFL for third-down conversion rate, they ranked ninth in total defense, and was 11th in points against. The talent is there. 

However, the defense was woeful at getting turnovers and ranked 19th in sacks. Causing turnovers, in particular, is an area where the Cowboys had become extremely deficient under Marinelli. 

Whether it was the scheme, the lack of aggression – the Cowboys were in the bottom third of the league in blitz percentage – or personnel, there had to be some change coming. The disguises and variance in coverages could be just what the doctor ordered in Dallas. NFL coaches are too advanced to see the film and not figure it out. 

During Nolan’s tenure as linebackers coach in New Orleans last season, the Saints ranked in the top half of the league in turnovers forced, blitz percentage, and came in third in sacks. In all three seasons with the Saints, Nolan’s team was in the top half of the league in turnovers and sacks.

Granted the talent isn’t the same in both places, but the Cowboys do have significant performers who can improve at taking the ball away. DeMarcus Lawrence remains a stud at defensive end, while tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe were brought in this spring to shore up the middle of the defensive line. Tyrone Crawford’s return, the reinstatements of ends Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory (hopefully), and the selection of Bradlee Anae will help the pass rush.

The Cowboys have young pieces in place at the next two levels of the defense as well. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Sean Lee lead a solid group at linebacker if they can stay healthy. HaHa Clinton-Dix’s arrival as a ballhawk to play at the center of the secondary can only help a young, but talented backfield, which includes an improving Woods and two rookie corners. Jourdan Lewis also returns as one of the team’s biggest turnover producers at cornerback.

The scheme changes could do wonders for this Cowboys defense and 2019 showed that it’s worth it to try.

It makes sense to lean on the offense to help win games, given the state of Dallas’ star power on that side of the ball. Putting points on the board is likely the way that the Cowboys will win games in 2020, but the defense will be working to change for the better in the meantime.

Do you think the Cowboys will be able to reverse the course and have a dominant defense in 2020? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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